If you’ve seen Ashleigh Johnson ’17 on campus, you’ve probably seen Chelsea Johnson ’18 — and vice versa.
The sisters are two years apart in age but live, eat, study, and play women’s water polo together.
“They’re inseparable,” says Princeton head coach Luis Nicolao. “They do everything together. It’s not very often you see one without the other.”
That’s the way they prefer it. Ashleigh, the star goalie, left Chelsea and Princeton last year to train with the U.S. national team in preparation for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she would lead the United States to gold. Meanwhile Chelsea, a versatile offensive player, had a breakout year as a scorer and helped to fill in at goalie when starter Helena van Brande ’18 was injured.
But for Chelsea, being apart from her sister made for a boring season. “Games were pretty uneventful,” she says. “I didn’t really look forward to traveling anywhere because my sister wasn’t there with me. Even school was boring. I didn’t look forward to practice. Practice is fun with Ashleigh.”
In their final year together at college, Ashleigh and Chelsea are making the most of the experience. For the first time at Princeton, the two live together. And they’re reviving their connection in the water, too, leading Princeton to a 15-1 start, through March 21.
“Being back with Chelsea has been really fun,” Ashleigh says. “She and I are the most communicative on the team. It’s fun to have that back-and-forth with somebody that you trust. We’re both still growing as players, so it’s fun to do it together.”
The sisters started swimming and playing water polo together as children in Miami. Chelsea was the first to try playing goalie, and Ashleigh followed.
“I was just copying her,” Ashleigh says. “I wasn’t choosing to go in the goal because it was anything that appealed to me in particular.”
A decade later, Ashleigh was named the world’s top water polo player in 2015, following a stellar World Cup performance for the United States. At the Rio Olympics, playing in front of Chelsea, their three brothers, and their mother, Donna, Ashleigh helped the U.S. team to a perfect record, including a nine-save performance against Italy in the championship game.
Chelsea, a strong collegiate player, doesn’t show any jealousy about her sister’s international stardom.
“It doesn’t really bother me,” she says. “She has her thing, and her thing is being the best goalie in the world. My thing is being her sister. I’m fine with that position.”
Ashleigh is the first Olympic gold medalist to compete for Princeton since Bill Bradley ’65 came back from captaining the 1964 gold-medal men’s basketball team and led the Tigers to the 1965 Final Four.
“Playing at the college level is a completely different experience than the Olympic level,” Ashleigh says. “It’s never going to be anything close to the level of competition or the level of excitement that you can experience in an Olympic game.”
“She probably needs the guys to come shoot on her every day,” says Nicolao, who also coaches the Princeton men. “When you play at that level, and have the Olympic team in front of you, the shots she was seeing every day, she’s not seeing it here in practice and competition.”
Ashleigh worried about how her Olympic success might change the expectations that others have for her. “I still want to be a part of a team sport,” Ashleigh says. “I don’t want to be someone that is just looked at to bail us out. That was the biggest issue that I thought I’d face. I didn’t want the whole responsibility of the game on my shoulders.”
Chelsea’s development as one of the team’s offensive stars has helped. She has followed a 21–goal season last year by scoring 24 for the Tigers with in the first 16 games this year. “Chelsea gives us instant offense,” Nicolao says.
Ashleigh has been dominant in goal, but she looks forward to the chance to play the field this year, maybe even trading places with her sister. It’s not so crazy: Chelsea was 4–1 in her brief turn as the fill-in goalie last year.
While this may be their last season together at Princeton, the Johnson sisters expect to play together at the club level after graduation. Says Chelsea, “I feel like it’ll never stop.”